Shipbuilding and the Wood Supply in 15th Century Europe

Ladule Lako LoSarah

            With generous prospects of wealth and power during the age of exploration, human travel reached a scale far beyond what the world had ever seen.  The globe’s oceans and seas became superhighways that transported riches along with people and ideas.   Countries with naval might reigned supreme; while those who lacked found themselves behind or exploited.  Since water was the median by which people traveled, the sailing ship became a valuable asset.  Wood, which was once the key fuel source, adopted a new, more demanding employment.  Ships required increasingly more wood, which essentially lead to rampant deforestation in Europe.  With trees vanishing from the European landscape, finding a new heat and fuel source became important.  Coal revealed itself as the “new wood” for combustion purposes.  Human travel during the age of exploration, manifested through large-scale wooden sail shipbuilding, had detrimental effects on the forests and natural environment.

            Carlo Cipolla stated, “Religion supplied the pretext and gold the motive.”  The riches beyond the horizons created a boom in international sea travel.  In addition, spreading the European beliefs of Christianity prove to be a prevailing doctrine among European sea voyagers.  The oceans became a vital part of the European economy and this lead to massive shipbuilding.  European ships traversed the globe many times over, importing and exporting commodities and people.  This induced a ratchet effect in which more travel and exploration lead to increases in shipbuilding that in turn created more voyages.  Each European colonial superpower boasting large naval capacities provoked a scramble to control key waterways and trade routes.  In a natural progression of events, ships evolved into an important source of warfare; naval battles became rampant during these times.  The use of ships for battle exacerbated the deforestation because casting iron for cannons and ordnance required large amounts of wood in the smelting process.  The increased sea traffic and inception of large gun ships for battle drastically increased the demand for wood, directly leading to immense deforestation.

            This deforestation spawned large problems from intrinsic loss of forest and decreased utility sustainability to adverse environmental conditions.  The forested areas provide vital roles such as reducing carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, hosting a variety of species, and maintaining soil fertility.  Deforestation removes large amounts of habitat where animal and plant species provide their niche in the ecosystem.  The loss of habitat decreases biodiversity and causes ecosystem failures where a key species dies out and the system collapses.  Another problem that deforestation created was the exposure of fertile top soil to wind and other the sun.  Soil without tree protection loses fertility and large areas become unusable.  Medieval kings often used the forest for hunting and recreation.  The loss of these forests diminished the potential for recreation and possible enjoyment from these forests.  This relatively early deforestation may have large effects on modern day problems such as global warming.  The reduction in the “carbon-sink” including forests could have worsened the problems that the world is feeling today.

            Increased travel and ship production stimulated another large, yet indirect effect on the environment.  With the diminishing wood supply, the populations of Europe needed a new fuel supply.   Michael Williams noted, “…the forest occupied a central position in medieval life as a source for light, heat….”  The fuel source that filled this void was charcoal.  Coal became the fuel of choice after wood found a new use—building ships.  Coal mining became a large industry after deforestation developed into noticeable problem. The combustion of coal created various environmental problems, most drastically air pollution.  The increased travel indirectly attributed to the environmental problems associated with fossil fuel usage and parts of the industrial revolution.

            The simple concept of increase sea travel and exploration during the 15th century created implications far beyond increased economic activity and cultural interactions.  This induced a chain reaction of events and circumstances that contributed to environmental degradation and deforestation.  Economic incentives prove to be the prevailing motives for innovation and technological progression.  Modern economic theory presents a model where this progression compromises the environment.  In the present era, technological innovation displays glimpses of working in the opposite direction.  Travel of the future may in fact soften the human environmental footprint.  Travel is relatively accessible, cheap, quick, and efficient.  A new innovation in travel could spark a new chain reaction where new more sustainable fuel sources replace those of the past.

Williams, Michael. "Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis" (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003), pp. 102-142. ISBN 0-226-89926-8, Cornell SD 131 .W53 2002

Cipolla, Carlo M., Epilog from "Guns, Sails, and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion, 1400-1700" Sunflower Univ. Press, 1996, pp. 136.

These include the countries of England, France, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands.

“Sea fight in these days come seldom to boarding or to great execution of bows, arrows, small shot and the sword but are chiefly preformed by the great artillery.” (Cipolla, Carlo)

Wood was typically used as a source for light and heat.

Williams, Michael.

Williams, Michael. "Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis" (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003), pp. 105. ISBN 0-226-89926-8, Cornell SD 131 .W53 2002

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